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Penrhyn Quarry

Penrhyn Quarry - Overview

Large-scale slate quarrying started at Penrhyn Quarry in 1770 under the ownership of Richard Pennant, who had inherited the Penrhyn estate through his wife, Ann Warburton. Over the next one hundred years, the quarry developed into the largest slate workings in the world, with a workforce of c.3,000 people and its main pit measuring almost a mile in length. With the help of specially laid railways, the slates were transported from the quarry to Port Penrhyn, just outside Bangor, to be shipped to the four corners in the world. Thanks to its high quality and it’s variety of shades, Welsh slate was considered to be the best roofing material available. It was also used as fencing and building material, flagstones, bespoke furniture, table wear, ornate headstones and decorative masonry.

Conditions in the quarries were life-threatening as the quarry men were suspended from ropes along the rock face and used explosives to remove large slabs of rock. If they did not suffer loss of limb or life, many quarry-men developed silicosis as tiny particles of dust from splitting slates settled in their lungs.

Owing to the adverse working conditions and the notoriously low wages paid to the quarrymen, Penrhyn Quarry saw a number of strikes towards the end of the nineteenth century. Lasting from 1900 to 1903, the Great Strike was the longest labour dispute in British history. It is estimated that nearly a quarter of the population across north Wales was affected. After three years of stalemate, the quarrymen ran out of resources and were forced to return to work at much decreased wages. In the aftermath, orders for north Welsh slate dropped considerably. Since then slate production has been in decline.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the sheer size of Penrhyn Quarry with its thousands of workers drew a great number of tourists. Rides in the open slate carriages hurtling down the inclines gave great pleasure to Victorian thrill-seekers. Today, the open carts may have disappeared, but tourists continue to zip around the open pit, this time suspended from wires.

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